By Jeff Shearer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Judd Ward arrived first, racing across the outfield to console his teammate and friend.
Within seconds, the gathering grew. From the bullpen, bench and infield, Auburn Tigers descended on Steven Williams, their presence saying more than any words of comfort ever could.
A minute earlier, Auburn's freshman right fielder had sprinted to the warning track, giving chase to a sharply hit ball. Williams leaped and outstretched his left arm, attempting to match his outfield mates' game-saving grabs from prior innings.
Williams looked in his glove, but the ball wasn't there. In an instant, it had caromed off his glove and over the wall.
While Florida dogpiled, celebrating a 3-2 win in 11 innings that clinched the Gainesville Super Regional, Auburn's players and coaches embraced.
"I think it's a good definition of the ballclub," Auburn coach Butch Thompson said. "The ballclub immediately went to right field and congregated there to be with Steven, and I think that's a good definition of our ballclub."
Without Williams, Auburn would not have been in this position -- one run away from the program's first trip to Omaha in 21 years.
Matching the defending national champs pitch for pitch on the Gators' home field, needing 29 innings over three days to determine a winner.
Williams homered Sunday in Auburn's 3-2 win. On Monday, he delivered again, driving in the Tigers' first run with two outs in the third.
Drafted by the New York Yankees as the country's No. 3 rated catching prospect, Williams chose Auburn instead, filling a need in the outfield this season before transitioning to catcher in 2019. He led the Tigers with 45 walks and a .409 on-base percentage. His 12 homers ranked second and his 51 RBI were third.
"It won't define him," Thompson said. "It will be part of his journey. He had a heck of a year. A special ballplayer. Our whole club knows it. It'll be a part of the journey that he'll look back on."
Like many of his teammates, Williams shared his feelings on social media, expressing his appreciation for being part of Auburn's program.
"They call it the Auburn Family for a reason!" Williams wrote on Twitter. "Love this team wouldn't want to go war with anyone else."
"Our guys have done a good job of not blinking, especially in the postseason," said Thompson, who has increased Auburn's win total from 23 to 37 to 43 in his three seasons. "One more. Keep fighting, and stick with it. Keep trying to make adjustments, keep trying to develop, keep trying to grow, keep trying to attack, keep trying to believe in everything you're doing.
"I'm glad we were here. I wanted more for our guys. I wanted another week with them, another two weeks with them. It'll end tonight but the message won't change at all. We get our hearts ripped out, but at the same time, this is living. And this is awesome to be part of."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer